On Genres, Labels and Renaissance Steampunk
When I first started writing, I really struggled to fit my work into a genre. I write fantasy – I have magic, but I also have technology…how does that fit? Can that fit into fantasy? What is fantasy? Does it even matter if I fit into a genre?
So I started wondering…is it important to fit into a genre?
In some ways, yes.
Genres help with the identity of your writing and as an author; “I’m a crime writer!”
It’s easier for readers to find the writing – for example, on Amazon or in bookshops
On the same note, it’s a lot easier for publishers to market.
There’s usually a history to the genre, a set of books and themes that make up that particular style. This means you can research and build on what went before.
The common themes and tropes of a genre make it easier to understand the genre, both for yourself and for your reader; you know what to expect…
…and that means that as a writer, you can then use or subvert those expectations.
But labelling yourself and your writing with a genre can also be a problem.
What if you don’t fit one genre? You can go cross-genre, but what if you’re just not any of them? How do you label yourself?
Genres can be limiting, both to you as a writer and to your readers – how many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t read beach romance/crime/sci-fi/horror?”
There are enough issues with pigeonholing writers (see Joanne Harris on women writers as a starting example…) without needing extra genre issues.
Genres can be over-specific – what happens if you write high fantasy but don’t have elves? – or so general as to be useless.
And finally, how to choose one genre? What if you write most of a genre but, for example, have a sci-fi Western that’s also a murder mystery story? How do you pick something that will appeal, but doesn’t stop people reading your work?
One solution to this is picking the most likely one. What’s the main element? If your story is mostly crime, then pick that – and it just happens to have a sci-fi-Western theme. If your story is High Fantasy without the elves, go for High Fantasy. Pick whatever works best.
Or….you could create your own genre.
China Mieville describes his writing as “weird fiction” and the genre as “New Weird” – it’s fantasy, but with a very new twist. Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings was a new idea when it first hit the shelves, for all that it’s now a staple of our genre ideas. The appropriately named “dying earth” has become more popular as part of the apocalyptic fashion, and how about the rise of zombie fiction as a genre? If something doesn’t fit into a ‘known’ genre, if it’s a different take on something…then maybe it’s something new.
Steampunk’s a brilliant example of this. It’s a fairly new genre, and features Victorian-era steam-powered technology combined with a retro-aesthetic, leading to a very industrialised world. However, the genre has also broadened out in recent years – cyberpunk was the original genre (think Blade Runner) but there’s atompunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, elfpunk…
Creating your own genre does have downsides; you don’t have the history and weight behind you, and so you don’t have the established ‘shortcuts’ when it comes to writing or explaining what the genre is. You’re on your own, trying to work out how to sell your writing and worrying about whether you’re categorising yourself too narrowly. Could you just get away with calling it “fantasy”? Do you really need to define further?
However, inventing your own genre can be incredibly freeing. You’re writing what you want, in your own world – if you want to add something, do. Who cares that “crime” traditionally doesn’t have goblins? Who cares that romance isn’t traditionally between an alien and a dragon? Who cares that you’ve mashed a magical University with faeries and a wild west theme? If it works, write it.
As for me? I write sparkpunk fantasy; Renaissance-era technology and electricity in a world with magic. It’s a bit of an unusual combination, but it’s one that I started writing without referencing a genre. It’s a world that works; it’s a story that works. And the genre label (I hope) does what it’s meant to: it tells the reader what’s inside the story without limiting the writer.
Green Sky and Sparks is out now from Kristell Ink, and is 99p/99cents for this weekend on Amazon.
In a world of magic, wind and electricity, Catter Jeck is offered the chance to explore a myth. Travelling from city to city, his search for the centre of the magic catches others in its coils. When the Lord Heir of Meton offers to continue the search in his flying machine, the consequences of their crash – and Toru’s accidental link to a dying Healer – suddenly become of central importance to all of their lives.
Kate Coe was born in Salisbury, and came to Swindon via a five-year detour to London. She’s a librarian with a background in classics and law, she lives with an engineer and very grumpy bearded dragon, and fills her spare time in between writing with web design, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things).
News and thoughts on her writing can be found at www.writingandcoe.co.uk